Alex Owumi: I played basketball for Gaddafi
- 6 February 2014
- From the section Magazine
When US basketball player Alex Owumi signed a contract to play for a team in Benghazi, Libya, he had no idea that his employer was the the most feared man in the country. Nor did he guess the country was about to descend into war. Here he tells his story, parts of which some readers may find distressing.
It was a beautiful flat. Everything was state of the art and it was spacious, too. It had two big living rooms, three big bedrooms, flat screens everywhere. The couches had gold trim and were so big and heavy they were impossible to move. The door to the apartment was reinforced steel, like on a bank vault.
It was 27 December 2010 and I had just arrived in Benghazi, Libya's second biggest city, to play basketball for a team called Al-Nasr Benghazi. I had stayed in some nice places playing for teams in Europe, but this seventh-floor apartment in the middle of town was something else. It was like the Taj Mahal.
I didn't immediately notice the photographs dotted around the place - of Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi and his grandchildren.
When I did, I phoned the team president - we called him Mr Ahmed - and he told me how it was. "The apartment belongs to Mutassim Gaddafi, the Colonel's son," he said. "Al-Nasr is the Gaddafi club. You are playing for the Gaddafi family."
Gaddafi! When I was a young kid growing up in Africa - I was born in Nigeria - Gaddafi was someone we all looked up to. He was always on the news and in the paper, helping out countries like Niger and Nigeria. I thought of him as one of the faces of Africa - him and Nelson Mandela. As a kid I wasn't really aware of any of the bad things he was doing. Maybe I was too busy playing sports.
In my first practice with my new team-mates there was a weird atmosphere. I asked the other international player on the team, Moustapha Niang from Senegal, "Why does everybody look so depressed?" And he explained it to me. "We've been losing," he said. "They haven't been getting paid, some of them are getting physically abused. If we don't win our next game, some of these kids are going to get beat."
A lot of the players had scratches and banged-up bruises on their arms. One had a black eye he was trying to conceal. Gaddafi's security goons would push them up against lockers, things like that - and some of these guys were not big athletes like me and Moustapha. During practice you could see some of them were just scared to make mistakes. But in any sport you're going to make mistakes, you're going to make bad plays. I can't go into a game and trust people who are scared.
The next day, we travelled to a game in Tripoli on a private jet like we were a team playing in the NBA [the National Basketball Association in the US]. That's how it was with Al-Nasr and the Gaddafi family - they got extra funding, extra millions of dollars. But the deal was we were supposed to win - and when we lost, it was a problem.
Col Gaddafi was at that game. Before the start I saw him sitting with his military personnel up in the stands in a white dress uniform. Walking on the court was his son, Saadi Gaddafi, the man in charge of sport in Libya. We spoke and honestly, he seemed like a nice man who just loved sport.
As we were talking, I looked into the stands at his father and we locked eyes. It lasted just a moment, but my team-mates saw it and my fans saw it. We won that game by 10 points and afterwards, in the locker room, Mr Ahmed handed out envelopes, each containing about $1,000 (£600) in dinars. "From our leader," he said.
After that game I started to get a lot of special treatment around the country because I had been personally acknowledged by the Gaddafi family. I never had to pay for food at the markets or in restaurants again. Everything from socks to a new TV and laptop - I got it all free or on a sort of open-ended loan. I never had to pay anything, not a dime. And after that game, we just kept winning and winning. I was the point guard - the captain, the conductor of the orchestra. We just kept winning and my team-mates weren't scared any more.
But we noticed that our team coach, Coach Sharif, was often sad during practice. He was Egyptian and was worried about the situation back home - by this time, the revolution there was in full swing. There were rumours that there would be an uprising in Libya, but I never really took them seriously. We're talking about a country where the leader had been in power for 42 years. Who in their right mind would cross that kind of leadership, that kind of army?
From the roof of my apartment in Benghazi I could see the whole of the city. I liked going up to the roof, especially when I was homesick and missed my family. I could really clear my mind up there.
But on 17 February 2011, at about 09:15 in the morning, I go on to the rooftop and see 200, maybe 300 protesters outside a police station across the street. A military convoy is coming closer and closer. Then, without warning, shots. People running, people falling. Dead bodies all over the ground. I'm praying, praying that this is a dream, that I will wake up sometime soon.
With these bullets flying everywhere, I'm hugging the floor of the rooftop. I am so frightened. So many things are running through my head and I just can't think straight. After 10 minutes or so, the shooting stops and there is only wailing and screaming.
I go back to my apartment and close the door. I call Coach Sharif. It takes a long time before my call is connected, but eventually he picks up. He tells me that he's on his way out of the country, back to Egypt, but that I should stay in my apartment and that somebody will come for me.
I try calling Moustapha but there is no connection. Over and over I punch the numbers on my phone, but the networks are down. The internet is down. I sit huddled against a big metal bookcase, praying.
Every now and then I peek out the window. The crowds of men have dispersed. Instead, I see kids, kids I played soccer with on the street. They have turned into rebels now, with their own shotguns and machetes. Regular life is over - it's every man for himself.
I watch as a little girl tries to drag her father back to their house. He's so heavy her mother has to come and help her. I can see the blood leaking from his head. His eyes are just gone, popped out of his head. And they can't move his body. They just sit by the road, wailing.
There is a bang on my door. I open it and two soldiers ask me, "American or Libyan?" I show them my American passport and they let me go back in. I shut the door. About 15 minutes later I hear a commotion in the hallway - yelling and scuffling. When it dies down a little, I open my door to see what's going on and I see a man, my neighbour, lying in the doorway to his apartment. He's covered with blood and isn't moving. For a moment I think he's dead.
I know this man and I like him. He has a daughter, about 16 years of age, and sometimes after practice I sit with her in the hallway and help her practise English.
I hear these noises coming from around the corner of the hallway. Strange noises - crying and heavy breathing. I creep slowly around the corner and see an AK-47 on the ground. I creep further round the corner and see one of the soldiers on the stairwell with his pants down raping that little girl.
There's so much anger in me. I reach for the gun, but then the other soldier steps out of the shadows, and pokes me with his own AK-47. I think he might just pull the trigger and blow me away.
But he doesn't. He just shoos me back to my apartment, jabbing at me with his gun. I'm yelling at him in English, calling him every name under the sun, but I don't have it in me to take him on. There's nothing I can do. He closes the steel door on me and I sink to the ground, weeping, banging my head against the door. I can still hear that poor girl on the stairwell. I can't do anything to help her.
As a Christian, it's hard for me to say this, but there were many times I questioned my faith in God. That first day I just sat on the ground, crying and praying, trying my phone again and again.
There was a group of women next door who had a baby who was crying with hunger. Libyans don't tend to keep much food in the house - they buy fresh groceries every day. So I gave them most of what I had - just a couple of slices of bread and some cheese - thinking that in two or three days this would be over.
But it carried on - the screams, the sirens, the gunshots. Non-stop, 24 hours a day. My apartment was in a war zone. It was all around me, I was just a dot in the middle of the circle of the bull's-eye. I told myself that I would be rescued, that at any moment Navy Seals would come crashing through my steel door. I kept myself ready to go at a moment's notice. I didn't go to bed, but just took short naps throughout the day and night.
The police station on the other side of the road was set on fire. The policemen climbed on to the roof, which was the same height as my apartment building. I stared at them across the street and they stared back at me.
I had no power and no water. The food I had left over was gone in a day or two. I rationed the little water I had for four or five days, then it was gone. So I started drinking out of the toilet, using teabags to try to make it more palatable. When I needed to go to the toilet, which wasn't much, I would urinate in the bathtub and defecate into plastic bags, which I tied up and left by the door.
I realised that if I didn't do these things I wouldn't survive. Three or four days after the massacre I had seen from the roof, a building across the street collapsed. The next day, the Libyan Air Force started dropping bombs all over Benghazi as they tried to retake the city.
I thought - I have those couches with gold trim but I can't eat this gold. These flat screens are not going to feed me. Everything in this apartment is worthless. The things that we take for granted as human beings - water, a bit of cheese, a slice of bread - suddenly these things felt like luxuries, luxuries I didn't have. I was getting weaker every day, slowly starving.
When the hunger pains got really bad, I started eating cockroaches and worms that I picked out of the flowerpots on my windowsill. I'd seen Bear Grylls survival shows on TV and seemed to recall that it was better to eat them alive, that they kept their nutrients that way. They were wriggly and salty, but I was so hungry it was like eating a steak.
I started seeing myself, versions of myself at different ages. Three-year-old Alex, eight-year-old Alex, at 12 years, 15 years, 20 years and the current, 26-year-old version. The younger ones were on one side, and the older versions on the other. I was able to touch them and I talked to them every day.
And I noticed that the younger Alexes were different, happier somehow, than the older versions, who seemed to have lost their direction. I asked the younger Alexes: "What happened? How can I get back to that happiness? How can I get my life back on track?" I asked them, "What made me make bad decisions?"
Twelve days after I shut myself away in my apartment, my mobile phone rang. It was Moustapha. "My brother, how you doin'?" he said. I told him I wasn't doing too well. He was stuck in his apartment on the other side of the city, too. And he told me that my girlfriend, Alexis, had called him from the US, frantic with worry about me.
When we spoke again the next day Moustapha told me that our team president, Mr Ahmed, had promised to get us out of the country. We had to make our way to his office - it was only two blocks from my apartment, but I wasn't sure how I would get there. "I will see you or I won't," I told Moustapha. "I will make it or I won't."
I was so weak that it took me about 15 minutes to climb down the seven flights of stairs in my apartment building. Out on the street I saw the empty shell cases that had been fired at the crowd two weeks earlier. I picked one up and thought, "Did this go through a human being?" They weren't like handgun bullets - they were the sort of thing that could take a limb off.
Then I saw those same kids I had watched from my window, the ones I had played football with - one had an AK-47 that was almost bigger than him. They recognised me and called out: "Okocha!" They called me that because they thought I looked like Jay-Jay Okocha, the Nigerian footballer. These kids saw my legs start to buckle and they raced to grab my arms. Two of them took my arms and I made them understand where I needed to get to.
They basically had to carry me for about a mile. We went the long way, down backstreets and alleyways. Sometimes they would break into a run, and sometimes one of the kids would shout and we all stopped dead and looked around.
At my team president's office, Moustapha and I hugged, and Mr Ahmed told the two of us, "I could get you out of here, but it's going to be very dangerous." He said it would mean a six-hour drive on a long desert road to the Egyptian border. Just a few days earlier, he had hired a car to take a Cameroonian footballer to the border. But this footballer had panicked at a rebel checkpoint and made a run for it across the desert. He had been gunned down.
Moustapha didn't want to do it but I managed to convince him. And all the time we were talking it over, I was stuffing my face with cakes and drinking bottles of water. It gave me enough energy to get back to my apartment on my own two feet, accompanied by my band of miniature warriors.
I packed a small suitcase and at about 02:00 a car horn beeped outside. It was our car to Egypt - a tiny vehicle with Moustapha - all 6'10" (2.08m) of him - already jammed into the front seat.
Fifteen minutes outside Benghazi we got to our first checkpoint - rebels searching through our stuff, throwing our clothes on the floor, looking for our passports. As black men, we were suspected of being Gaddafi mercenaries trying to escape the country.
At one point the rebels, guns in hand, kicked the legs from under Moustapha. I thought he was going to be gunned right down in front of me. The driver kept telling them, "They're just basketball players, they're just basketball players." But there was so much turmoil, so much death around the city, that people didn't believe anything.
By the grace of God they finally let us go. But there were another seven of those checkpoints, and instead of it being a six or seven-hour journey, it was 12 hours because we had to stop so often. We were searched and kicked to our knees so many times, thrown in the dirt. It was rough - and if I ever see that driver again I will give him all the money in my pocket.
We crossed the Egyptian border and after three days in a refugee camp, I could have begun the journey home to the US. But while I was waiting at the border for the Cairo bus to leave, I got a call from Coach Sharif. He told me: "I want you to come to Alexandria, stay with me and my wife, and get yourself back together, talk to us."
I thought about it and realised that I needed some time - I didn't want my family to see me the way I was. So I said goodbye to Moustapha and took the bus to Alexandria.
When Coach Sharif saw me, he shook his head, saying: "This is not the guy I've come to know. This is not him." I looked different - the pigment on my face was discoloured, I had hair all over my face. My teeth were rotten brown, my eyes were bloodshot red. But it wasn't just that. He basically saw that my soul was gone. And he said, the times I saw you happy were when you played basketball.
So while he and his wife took care of me, he got me involved with an Alexandrian team called El Olympi, coached by one of his former players. And it wasn't about the money any more, I didn't care about that. The big thing was being normal again.
I had a check-up before I started playing and I found that that fortnight without food had killed my body. Being a professional athlete, my body was used to a high-calorie diet. My liver was messed up, my lungs were bad, my blood was not right.
But I played anyway. El Olympi wanted me to help them make the playoffs, but we ended up winning 13 games in a row and taking the championship. It was amazing.
That decision to play the rest of the season in Egypt was a lot for my mum and my girlfriend to take, though.
When I went home and saw my father again I shed tears. He was in a diabetic coma. Had he gone into this coma because I didn't want to come home, his youngest son? I felt very, very guilty.
I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. I would shut myself at home for 15 hours with the blinds closed. I didn't shower. My girlfriend, Alexis, would come home and find me like that and it took a toll on our relationship. I got a lot of treatment, a lot of therapy. But I was raised in the Catholic church, and I found going back to church was a way back to my regular self.
As for my old team-mates in Benghazi, there was nowhere for them to go, no way for them to escape. A lot of them had to fight in the war. I am still in touch with one of them and with Moustapha, who I speak to about once a fortnight. I saw him last summer and gave him the biggest hug in the world. We're partners for life.
I have tried very hard to get in touch with that girl who lived across the hallway from me in Benghazi. I've found nothing, just nothing.
I was trying to forget about everything that had happened to me. But my family convinced me that I needed to get my story out there, so I wrote a memoir, Qaddafi's Point Guard. Doing that was hard - there were a lot of tears.
I don't regret going to Libya. In life, just like in basketball, you're going to make mistakes, you're going to make bad plays. But God has a plan for everybody - you could go left, you could go right, you're going to end up on his path at the end of the day.
My girlfriend and I are still together, and after a break from the game, I am playing again, this time in England, for the Worcester Wolves. My team-mates don't really know how to deal with me. I still get depressed just like that. In a minute, I go from happy to sad. I am liable to snap at people. They just leave me alone and I'm grateful for their understanding.
When I close my eyes I relive moments from 2011. I see faces, I see spirits. So staying awake is my best bet. I only sleep for four hours and by 08:00 I'm excited to go to practice. Basketball is an escape for me. The only time I get to be calm is in those 40 minutes of a game.
I do get really bad anxiety attacks before games, though. My hands get sweaty and start to shake. I can't breathe, I can't function. Sometimes I can't leave the locker room. People look at me and say, "Woah, this dude is so crazy." But that's normal for me now. That's normal life.
Matthew Bigwood photographed Alex Owumi in Worcester, January 2014. Website production by William Kremer and Catherine Wynne